North Korea Standing Pat?

From this evening’s _Nelson Report:_

NK POLICY…lots of studies still on-working as the Obama folks, teams still forming, try to assess where we are, and what to do to get where we want.

Increasingly, the “insider/expert’s debate” has shifted toward rueful discussion of whether the US must now face the reality of the DPRK as a nuclear state, given what its officials says it would take to achieve “denuclearization”.

The alternative seems to be some variation of the current negotiating track…with its implied continuation of the flow of inducements for fear of making a bad situation worse if they are stopped.

Increasingly, we hear US experts previously very “pro-engagement” questioning the negotiation/inducements approach.

The following preliminary report from a member of last weeks’ “private experts” “delegation to Pyongyang”: addresses the above concerns en passant, and was prepared at our request. It is, by agreement, anonymous.

It will be fundamentally disquieting to everyone involved:

“Viewed from Pyongyang, the arcane Beltway debates about the North Korea seem increasingly wide of the mark. Our interlocutors made repeatedly clear that the nuclear test and the claims of weaponization of the North’s plutonium inventory mark a fundamental divide in Pyongyang’s thinking and actions.

“Though the officials with whom we met insisted that ‘the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ remains Pyongyang’s long-term strategic objective, this goal seems premised on expectations so fanciful as to vanish into the mists of time.

“The essential message is that the North is now a state in possession of nuclear weapons, and that it’s time for the U.S. to accept this reality; the weapons will not go away anytime soon. This claim does not mean that negotiations are irrelevant.

“For example, the full disabling of the Yongbyon reactor and associated facilities would be a significant accomplishment, and the North Koreans gave every indication of wanting to proceed to completion, though they do not see a verification protocol as part of the Phase 2 deal.

“The essential message: you fulfill your objectives (i.e., on the provision of energy), and we’ll fulfill ours. The converse seems equally true, though the challenges of reconstituting the Yongbyon complex are ever more daunting, if not insuperable.

“Assuming completion, however, the challenges will then only increase. Expectations of the provision of light water reactors (as a condition for dismantlement) are again in play, and in some statements to this effect seemed virtually non-negotiable. This may well be little more than a marker for future negotiations, but Pyongyang has few incentives to remove items from the diplomatic agenda before determining what various items might be worth.

“Pending the removal of the ‘U.S. nuclear threat,’ Pyongyang insists that it must continue to enhance its defense and deterrence capabilities, though reports of an impending missile test were left somewhat ambiguous.

“The North Koreans recognized that the Obama Administration is reviewing its approach to future negotiations, and they seem prepared to be patient, at least for now.

“Their preferred outcome would give predominant weight to the bilateral relationship with the United States, minimizing or even dispensing with the Six Party process.

“The latter outcome would be clearly unacceptable to the United States and the other four participants in the negotiations, a point that was made repeatedly clear by all delegation members. But (unlike the 1990s) the North Koreans seemed in no particular hurry to proceed with full diplomatic relations with Washington, though this too may be a pose.

“A more disquieting prospect is the utter trashing of relations with the Lee Myong Bak administration. (By comparison, the criticisms of Japan seemed far more temperate.) This was not characterized as a ‘hardline’ position, but an appropriate response to actions by the South, including the repeated speculations about Kim Jong Il’s health, which were viewed as disrespectful to the ‘Great General’.

“As our delegation made clear, an outcome that leaves inter-Korean relations and Japan-North Korea relations in a deep freeze is demonstrably unacceptable to the United States. It was difficult to tell if the North Koreans internalized this argument, but it was conveyed unambiguously.

“In a longer run sense, the DPRK’s declared strategy presumes the end of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the invalidation of the U.S. alliance, and the development of a U.S.-North Korean ‘strategic relationship’, for which Pyongyang would denuclearize in return.

“Is this a serious negotiating stance, or does the North’s seeming bravado and assurance mask deeper anxieties about the fate of their system?

“There may be some modest evidence of change in North Korea, especially in the increasing monetization of the economy for those able to secure even modest amounts of hard currency, but the prospects for the DPRK’s citizenry remain deeply disquieting, with no obvious way out.

“The fundamental questions for the United States and for North Korea’s neighbors persist: how can outside powers credibly negotiate with Pyongyang without validating its claims to nuclear weapons status? And are the self referential leaders of the DPRK truly prepared for normal relations with the outside world, beginning most immediately with the ROK?”

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